- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Anonymous Corpse
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
We can be certain of very few of the facts in the case, but it is at least safe to say that Hillmon and Brown had no adequate conception of the litigation they were starting when they left Lawrence in December, 1878. Hillmon might have had some foreknowledge of his coming fame, because for the first time in his life he began a diary. (Cynical people believed he wrote the diary just for the purpose of having it planted on “his” dead body, where of course it was found.) It wasn’t a very great diary. Despite the fact that he and Brown were going, so they said, to look for a stock ranch, there was not much in the diary about that. The entries chiefly described the weather and the country.
January 6 … This kind of weather will make one almost curse camp life, and himself for being so silly as to start on a trip of this kind during the winter months. … The sun goes down tonight dark with snow and wind. I think it has been as blustery an afternoon as I have ever witnessed. This kind of weather is what will condemn this part of the country for stock. It will be almost impossible to save near all of the stock .…
February 8 … I think I have never did as hard work in my life as I have done in the past six weeks. It is killing me almost by inches to loaf around and do nothing as I have been doing of late. …
February 23 [back home in Lawrence] … Don’t see as thereis any good to grow out of me trying to keep track of my misdeeds, while I am apt to err as any one. And that I would be sure ashamed not to make a memorandum of, and only show up the best parts as others have done before me. …
That was the last entry in the diary when it was found in the dead man’s clothing at Crooked Creek. Hilhnon and Brown had made camp there on the evening of March 16. The nearest farmer, about three quarters of a mile away, called on them the next morning. In the afternoon, according to Brown, the two spent some time shooting. About sundown, Brown said later, he went to put the gun in the wagon and somehow caught the hammer of the gun and discharged it. Hillmon, standing by the campfire some twelve feet away, was hit in the back of the head and killed. Brown seized him by the arms and swung him away from the fire, but could not save his life or prevent his face from being singed by the flames. Brown’s actions then were all very prompt and correct. He immediately went for the farmer who had called on them, and next morning Brown and the farmer went for a justice of the peace, George Washington Paddock. An inquest was held on the spot. Then they took the body to Medicine Lodge, the nearest burying ground, where another inquest was held. Brown wrote the widow a proper letter and gave it to Paddock to send to her:
Medicine Lodge, March 19, 1879
Mrs. S. E. Hillmon:
I am sorry to state the news that I have to state to you. John was shot and killed accidentally by a gun as I went to take it out [ sic ] of the wagon, about 15 miles north of this place. I had him dressed in his best clothes, and buried in Medicine Lodge graveyard. I shall wait here until Mr. Paddock hears from you. If you will leave me to take charge of the team, 1 will dispose of them to the best advantage, and take the proceeds, and when I come back to Lawrence I will relate the sad news to you. Probably you have heard of it before you get this letter.
JOHN H. BROWN
Levi Baldwin came to Medicine Lodge at once, without Sallie, and he and Brown neatly fenced the grave. Then three men came from Lawrence to view the corpse for the insurance companies. They insisted that the body be disinterred, and that being done, they promptly declared that it was not Hillmon. Because of this dispute the body was sent to an undertaker in Lawrence, where it was finally seen by the “widow,” minutely examined by physicians, and elaborately photographed.